Single mother Erica Moore worries that her 16-year-old daughter Daisy’s summer romance could end in heartache, or worse. Then her own summer begins to sizzle when Clayton Knight shows up at her newly opened bookstore, East of Eaton.
Single mother Erica Moore worries that her 16-year-old daughter Daisy’s summer romance could end in heartache, or worse.
Then her own summer begins to sizzle when Clayton Knight shows up at her newly opened bookstore, East of Eaton.
Erica finds herself attracted to the dreamy, blue-eyed college instructor despite her own warnings to Daisy about men.
After years of loneliness, can Erica open her heart to hope and let herself love again?
Erica leaned against the kitchen sink, a scrap of paper clenched in one hand, the ringing telephone in the other.
A sleepy voice rumbled through the line. “Hello?”
“This is Erica Moore. My daughter and your son have gone out tonight without my permission. I want her home immediately,” she said, each word clipped with impatience.
“My daughter works with Brian at the pool. I don’t mind their friendship, but she’s only sixteen and I won’t have her running around with boys.”
Infuriated by the man’s soft exhalation, she curled her left hand into a fist imagining she could reach through the wires. She heard a rustling on the line, as if the man were rolling over in bed.
“Look, Mrs. …, what did you say your name is?”
“Moore. My daughter is out with your son. Brian needs to bring her home now!” she reiterated, pacing the kitchen floor.
“Okay, Ms. Moore,” he corrected himself with a trace of sarcasm, “Brian is not my son.”
She rolled her eyes. “May I speak with his father, then?”
“I’m afraid not. His parents are on a missionary trip to Africa. Brian is my nephew.”
“Well, if I can’t speak with his father or mother, I’d like to talk to him. Does he have a cell phone?”
“Uh, maybe. I think so. I’ve never had to call him. When he comes home, I’ll talk to him.” The man yawned.
Erica held the receiver away from her ear and stared at it disbelievingly for several seconds, then raged, “Don’t be ridiculous! I’ve just told you that my daughter is in trouble and you’re going to wait for him to ‘come home’ before you do anything?”
“I’m confused? Is she on a date or is she in trouble?”
“Both! She is too young to be out with Brian.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“Jump off a cliff, you jerk! I’ll handle this.”
She slammed the telephone into its wall mount and grabbed her car keys from a hook by the bulletin board. She stepped into the foyer and opened the front door of the Colonial home of her childhood. She paused, then turned towards the stairwell. “Dad, I’ll be back,” she yelled up the stairs. “I’m going to find Daisy. I’ve got my cell phone if she gets home before me.”
Walter Moore poked his head out the door of his upstairs study, his fingers caught between the pages of a book, holding his place. “Is everything alright?”
“No. Everything’s not alright. Daisy is out on a date without permission. I’m going to find that boy and wring his little neck,” she said, her voice rising in frustration. “Then I’m going to wring hers.”
“Honey, calm down. She’s fine, probably having a good time.”
“There is no way I’m letting her go out with some boy she hardly knows.”
“Well, how else is she supposed to get to know him?”
“Dad!” she shrieked. “Errrhhhh!”
Slamming the door closed behind her, she stomped down the dark sidewalk to her car. Once inside, she turned the key and gunned the engine. She slid the transmission into reverse and started backing out when another car turned into the driveway. She hit her brakes, the small car rocking.
In the rear – view mirror, she could see the high, tight headlights of a Jeep. She also could see two silhouettes. Recognizing Daisy’s long hair, she shoved the gearshift back into park, yanked the keys from the ignition and jumped out of the car. She strode to the driver’s ragtop door and rapped hard on the window. The young driver unzipped the window.
She flashed him what she considered her “evil eye,” then stood on her tiptoes and glared at her daughter. She pointed at Daisy, her finger less than an inch from the boy’s face. “You, get in the house now.”
“And you,” she said, pointing between the boy’s astonished eyes, “get out of my yard and don’t come back.”
Daisy bowed her head. Brian’s knuckles turned white against the Jeep’s steering wheel as he stared straight ahead, his mouth full of cotton. Erica stormed back to the house.
At the steps, she turned and bellowed, “Now!” then went inside, slamming the door.
She leaned against the stairwell, one hand draped on the banister, and waited for her daughter. Walt once again came to the top of the steps, shook his head sadly, then slipped back into his den.
Mere seconds passed before Daisy erupted through the door, her dark eyes wide and focused on her mother. “Mom? What’s wrong? Why did you embarrass me that way?”
Her voice, sweet and timid, wavered. Her eyes brightened with unshed tears. A quiet, artistic girl, Daisy avoided confrontations and spent most of her time sketching, reading or working on her computer. Her bedroom served as her art studio and her sanctuary.
As a child, schoolmates taunted her with jeers ranging from “shy” to “snob.” Now entering her junior year of high school, she was a confident and beautiful young woman. The jeers and taunts ceased, giving way to awe and envy.
She is my most precious treasure; I can’t lose her, Erica thought as studied her daughter’s frowning face, so much like her own. “Where were you and who gave you permission to go out?”
“We were at the ice cream parlor. Brian gave me a ride home from the pool, and we stopped for an ice cream. That’s all.”
“Didn’t you realize that I would be here, worrying sick about you when you didn’t come home? I went to the pool to check on you and they said you had gone off with that boy. I’ve been sitting here waiting nearly two hours for you to come home.”
“I’m sorry. We ran into a couple of kids from school and we sat around talking. I didn’t realize the time.”
“You’re sorry. Well, that’s just fine. You’re also grounded. You can go to work and that’s all. You’re to come straight home and no more rides with boys.”
Tears flashed in Daisy’s eyes. “Mom! That’s not fair. I just had an ice cream with a nice guy. We’re not going to do anything wrong.”
“Exactly. With you at home, I don’t have to worry that you’ll be doing something you shouldn’t. Now go to your room.”
Erica turned her back on her daughter, the conversation over.
Daisy glared at her mother then stomped up the stairs, stifling sobs. She went into her grandfather’s den.
Walt slid his reading glasses down his nose, peeking over the rims at his granddaughter. She sat on the worn, plaid footstool by his chair, a tear sliding down the side of her nose. His heart ached to comfort her. “Hi, honey.”
Daisy immediately turned to her ally. “I can’t believe her, Pappy. She grounded me. I didn’t do anything wrong and now I can’t go anywhere.”
Walt squirmed in his chair. “Your mom needs to know where you are all of the time. Why didn’t you call?”
“I didn’t realize how long we were out. We were having so much fun, talking to some kids. I never go out and the first time I do, she reacts this way. She’s crazy!”
Daisy kicked the leg of the maple side table and the footstool rocked precariously. She crossed her legs, Indian-style, put her elbows on her knees and curled her fists against her cheeks. Her long, blonde hair shrouded her face.
“She’s not crazy. She’s worried about you. Your mom has had a hard life and…”
“So because she’s had a hard life, I have to pay for it? I’m not her. I’m not going to go out and get pregnant.”
Daisy, crying in earnest, ran to her room and slammed the door.
Walt sighed, put his book on his side table, walked heavily down the stairs and went into the kitchen. It was difficult being the only man in the house, especially since the women could be emotional and, lately, feuding.
His daughter stood at the kitchen counter swabbing the stainless steel sink with abrasive cleanser. Walt could tell she was still annoyed by her quick jerks as she rinsed the sponge, furiously squeezing the soap from its blue pores.
“Erica,” he said. “I try not to interfere with you and Daisy, but I think tonight you went a bit too far.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. She dropped the sponge and began flinging dishes into the open dishwasher.
“Don’t break that,” he cautioned as she slammed a pot lid against a glass bowl. He continued, “Daisy is right; she’s not you and she’s not going to do anything stupid.”
Erica turned to face her father, her hands on her hips. “That’s right. I was stupid, wasn’t I? I’ve lived with my stupidity every day for the past seventeen years. And you know what, Dad? I’m not sorry. I know she’s the best thing that could ever have happened to me, even if she did come along at the wrong time. But this isn’t the life I want for my daughter. I want her to enjoy her youth, finish high school and go to college.”
“You finished high school and you went to college,” he pointed out.
“Sure, I graduated from high school with a baby in the audience. I had to go to college and work a full-time job to support her.”
Erica sighed and turned back to dishwasher, this time her movements were slower, her anger ebbing. “I know, you were there and you did everything you could to help. I’ve always appreciated that, Dad. And you know I love you, but sometimes I wonder if Mom had still been alive, if I had had a woman watching out for me, I might not have gone boy crazy.”
The comment stung, but Walt didn’t show it.
“You weren’t boy crazy,” he said. “You had one boyfriend. I wish I had been there more, but you were such an independent child. You never seemed to need my help. It’s not your fault, honey, it’s mine. I was too easy going.”
“This is exactly why I’m freaking out here, Dad. I’m not going to let my daughter out of my sight anymore. I don’t care. She’s not going to date until she’s out of college. Final answer.”
“That’s silly, Erica. You know you can’t keep her under your thumb.”
“Well, I can try.”
Walt shrugged and slowly walked back up the stairs to his study. He understood his daughter’s fears and he, more than anyone, knew they were justified. He also knew she couldn’t avoid the chaos, the passion and the unpredictability of life. He said his piece and hoped some of it would sink in. If he pushed, he knew his daughter’s contrarian nature would overcome her common sense.
Erica turned on the dishwasher and locked the back door. She moved through the house checking doors and windows, her nightly routine. She opened the front door and called for her cat.
“Here kitty, kitty. Jasper.”
A faint tinkle preceded Jasper’s dash from the bushes at the front of the house. A shorthaired cat, he sported a black-and-white coat that reminded Erica of a tuxedo. His red collar and bell completed his dapper attire. Jasper daintily jumped the steps until he reached Erica’s ankles. Nearly 18 pounds, the fat cat was friendliest when he hoped she had a treat.
“Let’s go to bed, Jasper.”
Erica opened the door and held it for Jasper, who ungratefully took his time deciding to come in. He sat down, his huge belly bowling out in front of him, and licked his chest.
Erica put her foot on the big cat’s back and gave it a push. “Move it, fatso.”
His ears flattened and he leaned back disapprovingly, then fell sideways. Ever arrogant, Jasper stood up. His tail twitched twice and he stalked into the house.
Back in the kitchen, he forgot her disrespect and winnowed between her feet. Erica gave him a spoonful of milk, then headed up the steps to her bedroom.
Once in her room, she kicked off her sandals and unbuttoned her shirt. She moved into the private, adjoining bathroom and tossed the shirt in the laundry basket. Her jeans followed along with her bra. She turned on the water in the shower and while it the water heated, she brushed her teeth.
She paused, studying the mirror. She tried to imagine herself as others saw her, but couldn’t. She’d stopped thinking of herself as a woman, much less an attractive one, long ago. She spent so much time de-sexing herself, being a mother first, a daughter second, a businessperson third.
When she selected clothing, it was based upon durability and comfort. She never bought anything that needed dry-cleaning. She rarely wore makeup, either, preferring tinted skin moisturizer, a little mascara and neutral lip-gloss.
She felt she had been in limbo for years, waiting for something, or someone, to happen before she could begin her “real life.” Meanwhile the years slipped away. She forged ahead, earning a college degree and working as a researcher at a local law firm while she saved money for her own business.
And she raised her child as best she could. Living with Walt was a blessing. Not only did she have her father, but Daisy had her grandfather and a built-in nanny. Widowed for nearly twenty years, Walt cherished his small family. He retired from his job as a public school teacher when Daisy was born so his daughter could work and then go to college. Once Daisy began Kindergarten, Walt went back to substitute teaching at local schools. It was a good arrangement and Daisy helped to heal his grieving heart.
Erica stepped into the hot shower and steam enveloped her. She concentrated only on the world within the large, claw foot tub. After letting the spray stream over her head for a few moments, she picked up the shampoo and sudsed her wavy, dark brown hair. She had a habit of running her hand through her hair, pushing it from her eyes, which precluded her from keeping a specific style. She kept it informal and shoulder length.
She squirted shower gel onto the bath puff and soaped her long legs. I’m getting soft, she thought, as she ran the puff over her calf. Erica didn’t exercise; she walked during her lunch breaks. When she was younger, especially after Daisy was born, she jogged and worked out at the gym, but in recent years, she preferred walking. She found it meditative, relaxing. As a result, her body lost its lean, muscular definition. She became more rounded. She considered herself a few pounds overweight, but she didn’t let it bother her. Not too much.
Finishing her shower, Erica turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. She dried off quickly and grabbed her favorite nightgown off a hook on the bathroom wall. She slathered moisturizer on her face and hands, petroleum jelly on her lips and exited the steamy bathroom.
She didn’t have a television in her bedroom; she preferred to read at night. Like her father, books were her passion. She enjoyed reading about others and their vicarious adventures, while keeping her own life ordinary.
But all of that was about to change, she mused. Last month she signed the papers for her own business — she now owned a bookstore. The former owners of Sullivan’s Books, an elderly couple retiring to Florida, ran the shop for generations. It broke their hearts, the woman confided in Erica, that their own children weren’t interested in operating the store and, in fact, moved from the area in search of greener, more exciting pastures. For Erica, it was the fulfillment of her dream. She scrimped and saved money for a down payment, and then scrimped more to expand and renovate the shop.
She fell asleep, her paperback unread on her pillow, dreaming about the grand opening of her new bookstore.
Daisy cried herself to sleep. When she woke up, her face was puffy and sad. Erica stirred half-and-half into a cup of coffee and felt a bit guilty when a listless Daisy walked into the kitchen. Erica tried her standard bribe.
“Want to go shopping later this afternoon? I’ve got to go to Peachy’s for some things for the store.”
Peachy’s, the heart of Eaton despite its location on the outskirts of the town, served the community needs with its various shops and businesses. Owned by the same family since 1842, Peachy began as a general store. During the past century, it evolved to include everything from goldfish to gasoline, and provided services ranging from haircuts to hot tub repairs. Each generation of the Peachy family added to the business, expanding it as their various interests and talents emerged.
A few years earlier, one of those “big box” stores opened on the other side of town, but lasted only a year. After that, a big discount chain moved into the abandoned building. It closed too. There was no competing with the hometown oddity.
Peachy’s never moved into book selling, mostly because the Sullivan family already provided the service. As much as Peachy’s had a monopoly in some things, they were neighbors first
Morose, Daisy sat at the small wooden table. She didn’t look up from the bowl of cereal she’d poured for herself. “I’ve got to work at the pool until seven. Thanks, anyway.”
“Well, I can wait until later. We can go tonight after dinner, or we can eat out, if you want.”
Daisy knew the routine well. Her volatile mother would get angry, yell, make her cry, then try to make up. Daisy allowed it most of the time. Throughout the years, she had amassed quite a lot of music, clothes, art supplies and books by milking the remorse.
Erica shrugged and picked up her pocketbook and car keys. She knew the routine, as well, although she’d never admit it. “I’ll see you tonight, then. You remember to come home right after work; no side trips.”
“I know,” Daisy said, annoyed.
Erica drove slowly through the neighborhood, heading for town. Summer was in full swing and children rode bicycles and played ball in the streets. She decided to take a slight detour and drive by the community pool at the corner of High and Elm streets. She paused at the stop sign and peered through the tall, chain-link fence. She spotted Brian in his lifeguard’s chair, perched above the loud mob of children. He had zinc oxide on his nose, sunglasses over his eyes and a whistle in his mouth. He blew a couple of quick bursts and pointed at a little boy. “Quit splashing, Franklin, or you’ll have to sit out.”
A little girl came up to his post, crying. He jumped down and put his hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Jody? You hurt your finger?”
Erica watched as he examined at the little girl’s hand. A few moments later, he kissed it. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed, then sprinted to the shallow end and jumped into the pool, splashing Franklin. Brian put his fists on his hips and shook his head.
“So, he’s a nice guy,” Erica fumed to herself. “He’s also a troublemaker.”
A car honked behind her. How long had she been sitting at the intersection, watching Brian? She waved her hand in apology and, checking both ways, drove on.
Once downtown, she parked behind the bookstore. My bookstore, she thought proudly as she turned the key in the lock and pushed open the metal back door. She flipped on the lights in the long tunnel that ran behind her business. It served as a storage area with boxes of books stacked along on wall and furniture jumbled in a corner.
She walked through the shop, turning on lights, music and her computerized cash register. She arrived a half-hour before her new staff, enjoying the quiet.
She’d negotiated with the owners to sell her the entire building. She didn’t want to relocate anyone; she wanted to become their landlord and spread her business into empty storefronts. She planned to tear down walls and enlarge the existing shop. She also intended to use the empty second floor. Or, part of it at least. She talked with a contractor about raising the ceiling and converting half of the second floor into a spacious, open loft. For more than 125 years, customers funneled through the cramped bookstore. Erica felt that it needed to stretch if it were to survive.
She admired the layout and additional amenities that large bookstore franchises offered, and that was her goal. The stacks would be roomy and she would place comfortable chairs and sofas throughout the shop to encourage reading. Her plans included adding a small coffee and pastry shop, a stage for acoustic concerts and book readings, a music and film section, and even a playroom for toddlers.
Erica wanted her bookstore to be a destination, a place where people could spend hours, if they wanted, browsing and reading. She felt certain the business would thrive; the town couldn’t support large chain stores, and hers was the only bookstore within a forty-mile radius.
She would offer free downloads of electronic books, also, encouraging readers to come to the bookstore with their eReaders and “shop” online the comfort of the store’s new cozy café, which she named “Sullivans” in homage to the longtime previous owners. She wouldn’t let the “digital revolution” cripple her new business, as it had so many others. She knew that shopping for books could be a sensory experience and she intended to surround shoppers with sights, smells, sounds and textures that induced them to spend money on one thing or the other.
It helped that the once-depressed downtown was evolving. It boasted several small art galleries, chic new restaurants and even a nightclub. Although tucked away in upstate Pennsylvania, it was becoming a popular place to live. Quiet, pastoral, historic, the small city of Eaton was a safe place to raise children. Its proximity to major cities and the advent of high-speed telecommunications also helped. More people could work at home, via the Internet and cellular technology.
Before she took her business loan to the bank, she sat down with Robert Hall, her attorney and former employer. Their friendship began while she worked at his law firm.
“Do you realize how many people live in this region?” he asked. “According to demographics I’ve read recently, there are more than 300,000 single, college-educated people within a one hundred-mile radius. You’re talking about people with a disposable income of $6 billion. They don’t have children, they enjoy art and literature and they don’t mind spending money on what they enjoy. I think that demographic alone guarantees your new bookstore will succeed. That is, if you are willing to make the changes needed to improve it both physically and thematically.”
“What do you mean, thematically?” Erica asked.
“Your bookstore needs to take into account topics that matter to all people, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or sexual preference. You need to cater to all people not only adding diversity but emphasizing it. It needs to be sophisticated. Raise the bar with your décor, your book titles, your beverages and desserts.”
“Wow. That’s going to cost a lot more than I anticipated.” Eric chewed her bottom lip.
Robert spread his hands. “I understand. But, you don’t have to worry about going it alone. If you’re interested, I’d like to invest in your business.”
“Yes, Erica. We’ve known each other for a long time. I know you and I trust you. You’re an ethical woman and you’re driven to succeed. I would certainly consider investing in a business that would improve this city and provide me with hours of enjoyment. I love a good bookstore and I’m sick of having to go to a major city to patronize one.”
Not only did Robert understand and appreciate her vision, he wanted to be a part of it. Erica was thrilled with the suggestion. She knew how dedicated he was to his own business. If he were only one-tenth as dedicated to hers, she couldn’t miss.
They spent hours going over renovation plans. He enjoyed recommending contractors, interior designers, booksellers and even chefs. If she needed it, he had a client who could provide it.
With Robert’s support, Erica secured the loan she needed and at a great interest rate. Last week she signed the papers for her bookstore, “East of Eaton,” a play on the book title, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Robert suggested the name not for its biblical reference, but because the historic building she purchased was east of Main Street.
“You can’t lose with a name like that,” he enthused.
“You better be right,” Erica replied. “Or we’re both cursed, just like Cain.”
She worried about renaming the store; for more than one hundred years, it had been known throughout the community as Sullivan’s. But the Sullivans were now living in sunny Florida and Erica agreed with Robert that a fresh start deserved a fresh name.
Today, the contractors would finish tearing down the last wall. They sectioned the area temporarily with sheets of clear plastic to contain the grime and concrete dust. For the past three weeks, Erica kept ahead of the contractors, packing books into boxes, shuttling them into the back tunnel or to the far side of the shop, safe from the debris.
She checked the time. She expected her assistant manager, June Duval, any moment. A widow who worked at the bookstore for 28 years, Mrs. Duval agreed to stay on when the Sullivans retired. Much to her surprise, she enjoyed Erica’s enthusiasm and plans.
Mrs. Duval also adored Robert. A stylish gallant, he often escorted her to the symphony and the occasional art gallery opening.
Robert enjoyed discussing books and films with her and appreciated feminine company without the complications younger women entailed. “You have no idea how intelligent that woman is,” he once told Erica. “She’s read every book she’s ever sold. She’s a walking encyclopedia.”
“She’s had time,” Erica responded. “She’s devoted her life to this shop. I’m just glad she agreed to stay and that retiring to Florida doesn’t interest her yet.”
At a quarter ’til nine, Mrs. Duval inserted her shop key into the brand new front door. Made of heavy oak with twelve beveled glass panes, the door and the hardware were antique reproductions. As the door swung open, it struck an old-fashioned bell. Erica raised her head at the sound. She spent a lot of time picking out the right bell. It had to be musical and faint; not the kind that disturbed people browsing or reading, but would catch the attention of the person at the counter.
Her eyes lit up as the elfin, silver-haired woman gently shut the door and flipped the “Closed” sign.
East of Eaton opened for the day.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Erica said. “I have to run to the convenience store. We’re out of sugar and creamer. I’m sorry; I was too distracted this morning to pick it up on my way.”
Mrs. Duval’s face was serene, nearly unlined and belying her age. At sixty, she could have passed for fifty any day. “You go along, dear. I know you can’t drink your coffee without it. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. The contractors know what to do and until the shop is finished, I’m just here to dust, pack and sort.” She wryly added, “Then dust some more and unpack.”
“I hear you,” Erica said, pulling her purse from underneath the sales counter. “I’ll only be a minute.”
She walked out the door, head bent as she fished in her purse for her wallet, and collided with a man on the sidewalk. The impact knocked her to the ground. She sat there, stunned. Her open purse spilled its contents onto the walk. The man staggered several steps before stopping against a large flowerpot, part of the city’s beautification project.
“Excuse me,” he said, gathering his wits first. “Are you alright?” He knelt by Erica and offered his hand. “Can you stand up?”
Looking into his eyes, she wasn’t sure if she was dizzy because of the fall or because she literally bumped into the most handsome man she had ever seen. Well, not as handsome as Robert, but …. She blinked and struggled to her feet.
Brushing off the back of her pants and her elbows, she apologized. “I’m sorry. I was trying to hurry and I didn’t see you.”
She squatted to pick up her purse, shoving her wallet, keys, cell phone and ink pens into the cavity. Her lip moisturizer had rolled away and she stretched to retrieve it. Their hands met, his closing around the tube first.
“Here; let me help you,” he said putting a hand under her elbow and gently lifting her.
Erica found herself staring into concerned blue eyes, unable to speak. His eyes were deep set and crowned with thick, dark eyebrows. How unfair, she thought, noticing his long, lush lashes. Dark brown hair curled against his collar, sweeping his cheek as he bent over. He hadn’t shaved for a couple days and on him, scruffy was definitely sexy. His mouth was wide, his lips thin, his nose straight and narrow. Taken separately, his handsome features seemed delicate, but combined for a dreamy, poetic look.
“Wow,” she said, dazed.
“What?” he asked.
Erica blinked. Had she spoken aloud? “I think you should sit down for a minute.”
He took her hand and led her to a nearby park bench, another aspect of the city’s beautification plan. When she sat, he crouched in front of her and examined her eyes, first one and then the other. “Your pupils seem okay. I don’t think you have a concussion. How many fingers do you see?”
He waved his hands in front of her face. She blinked and tried to focus. “Seven? No, eight. You know, most people generally hold up two.”
“I think you’re fine,” he said, laughing.
He sat on the bench next to her and gestured towards the bookstore. “What’s going on? Is this place closing?”
Erica felt herself flush as his jean-clad leg brushed against hers. “No. We’re renovating. We’ll be open to the public in another week.”
“What happened to the old couple who used to run it?”
“They retired to Florida. I bought the building and I’m expanding.”
He whistled. “You mean this entire building will be a bookstore?”
“Well, almost. The florist is staying and so is the goldsmith at the end of the block. I’m taking out a few walls so there will be more space between the stacks and room for browsing. I want shoppers to stay for a long time. I’m also adding a coffee shop and on weekends we’ll have live music.”
Her face glowed as she told him her plans and he found himself studying her as she spoke. Erica blushed at his scrutiny.
“Sounds great. But what about my book fix? I need something now.”
She bit her lip. “It’s a bit of a mess in there right now. We’ve been moving all of the books from one side of the shop to the other so the contractors can work faster. What are you looking for?”
“I had my eye on a book in the history section.”
“Oh well, that side hasn’t been touched yet. I guess I can let you in, if you promise to be careful and stay away from falling hammers.”
“Falling women are my specialty.”
She blushed again and stood up quickly. Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she walked over to the shop and opened the door. The bell rang softly. “Enter,” she said, her back against the door.
In three long strides, he was next to her, his arm snaking behind her head to hold the door. Eye level with his collar, she was fascinated by the dark curls at his throat. She breathed in his aftershave and her eyes closed. It had a dizzying effect and she began to sway.
“Hey, hey. I thought you were okay. Maybe you have a concussion?”
Her eyes snapped opened and she rubbed her face with her hand. “I’m fine. I guess I just stood up quickly. Head rush,” she explained. She stepped through the door and flung her purse on the counter.
Mrs. Duval stopped packing a box and made her way towards the front of the shop after hearing the bell ring. “That was quick.” She glanced at the man behind her employer. “Good morning, Clay. We’re not really open to the public yet.”
“I know, June. But I ran into …,” smiling, he turned to Erica, his hand outstretched. “I’m sorry. I don’t know your name.”
She slid her hand into his and he gave it a light squeeze. She froze. His smile faltered and he lifted an eyebrow quizzically.
“Erica,” June supplied. “Clayton Knight, this is Erica Moore. She’s the new owner of East of Eaton. She is quite capable of speech, though apparently not at the moment.”
He released her hand slowly and his lips turned upward, this time lighting his eyes. “Have we met?”
Erica recovered her wits. “Yes. Five minutes ago outside. I’m the person who ran into you.”
He laughed easily. “No. I mean before. Your name sounds familiar.”
“No. I would have remembered you.”
Clay and Erica’s eyes locked for several seconds until he broke the connection. He studied the scaffolds, the compressors, the curtains of plastic sheeting. “East of Eaton? That’s a terrific name. Where are your workers?”
“They’ll be here later this morning. Mrs. Duval and I are shuffling books around today, making sure they aren’t damaged during the construction phase. The history section is right over there. There are a lot of boxes in the aisle, but you can move anything that’s in your way.”
“Thanks. I will.”
Erica watched the tall, slender man saunter to the far end of the shop, then she turned to Mrs. Duval. “You know him!”
It was not a question. Mrs. Duval was mildly amused. “Of course I do. I’ve worked here nearly all of my life. Clay is one of our best customers. Not only does he shop here regularly, but he sends his students our way also.”
“Clay is a history professor at Marshall College. He’s also one of our local authors.”
Erica found herself peeking at him as he shoved cartons of books out of his way and rested a hand on the top of the bookshelf. A couple of the top buttons of his white shirt were undone. His jeans were faded and snug. He also wore a jacket, a comfortable, black blazer that gave him some semblance of formality. A casual chic style. She gave him four stars on the hunk meter. Hell, I’ll give him five, she thought.
He glanced at the women and caught both of them staring at him. He winked. “Thanks. Found it,” he called, a book in his hand. He opened it and flipped through the pages.
Erica turned to Mrs. Duval and stammered, “Oh, my.”
“Yes; he is a sweetie, isn’t he?”
“Is he married?” Erica’s eyes followed his every gesture.
“No. I don’t think so. I really only know the basics. He’s not much of a talker. Guess he does enough of that with his job. Do you like him?”
“I don’t know him but, wow, who wouldn’t like him?” Mrs. Duval changed the subject. “Where’s the cream? You didn’t go to the store?”
“No. It can wait.”
“Your coffee can wait? This is a first.”
Erica dragged her eyes from the lone customer. “You’re right. I’m acting like a fool. Guess I’ll try this again,” she said, picking up her purse and stepping from behind the counter.
“Bye,” she said, peeking over her shoulder. She caught a smile and a wave from the new customer. Erica ducked her head and walked out the door. She made a mental note to double-check that the history section of East of Eaton was well stocked.
It’s just good business, she told herself.